“We are not Toyota”


Mark's note: Today's guest post is a return visit by Gert Linthout, from Belgium. Gert and I were part of the same Lean healthcare study trip to Japan back in 2012. He was the co-creator of this creative video on Kaizen that I featured in this blog post. See his previous guest posts.

By Gert Linthout


Once upon a time…

It was some years ago, when we guided a Lean transformation project in a regional hospital.  The ambition was to drastically improve the experience of patients in the surgical “one-day pathway.”  An in-depth patient survey and analysis of the value stream revealed that missing information for the patient and long and unpredictable waiting times were the main drivers for dissatisfaction.  A sub-optimal planning and system appeared to be the most important root causes.  Although the problems were recognized, quite a lot of resistance existed in the organization to change the current way of working.

As part of the cultural transformation, we took a group of key players (such as doctors, nurses and managers) to a car manufacturing site.  This was done not only for sightseeing, but also to assemble cars together, as a team, in a simulated work environment.  We experienced and practiced the principles of teamwork, coaching, leadership, structured problem solving, flow and pull, quality at the source… at the assembly line.

Photo Courtesy Toyota
Photo Courtesy Toyota

It was some weeks later, during the analysis phase, while measuring the baseline waiting times, that we saw a sharp (and unexpected) decrease in waiting times for a specific patient group (those having small treatments with local anesthesia). 

Without notifying anybody, one of the doctors present at the training had changed his way of planning: instead of asking all patients to come at the start of his treatment block, he now called the next patient each time a patient left the treatment room (with a buffer of two).  He, in fact, translated what he had experienced at the car plant into a ‘pull' system for his patients… Waiting times dropped from 120 to 30 minutes, patient complaints dropped to zero.

The “We are not Toyota!” hype

This is not someone shouting, it is the name of recently published book (only available in Dutch).  Two weeks ago, while attending the European Shingo Summit in Cork, a similar title of a healthcare presentation caught my eye.  It must be a new hype, I thought, feeling quite curious, as I would find it odd to present myself as “Hi, I am not Bart.”  

What would the speaker actually mean? We are not car manufacturers?  We are not Japanese?  We use different tools?

It was, in fact, a quite inspiring talk on how the healthcare sector has a huge potential to benefit from insights from other sectors, stressing the importance of leadership, focus on the patient and his/her individual needs, quality…  and of course: “don't copy the Toyota tools blindly!”

Wondering who had suggested this in the first place, some desk research of known literature showed me no suggestions in this direction. 

The focus is and always has been the creation of value, respecting individuals and developing them, pursuing a long-term purpose, extreme focus on quality…  It can be brought together as a carefully designed culture, a set of desired behaviors supported by an appropriate leadership style and strong guiding principles. 

Might this be what went wrong in the “Western” translation of what Toyota did: as a culture is difficult to grasp and transpose to your own organization, we did try to copy the tools?

It reminds me of the Japan Kaikaku Experience together with @MarkGraban@leanmicro, and @tdgroote in 2012.  At the start of the gemba tour, at the Toyota Motor Corporation Motomachi plant, the guide advised us:

“Please do look beneath the visuals and tools you will see everywhere: they are only the result of our problem solving process, to find the answer for a specific problem we experienced at a specific moment in time.  The true essence is in the underlying behaviors and principles.”

Proud to be…

Coming back to the example of the surgeon, it gives me a great feeling: there are always more reasons not to change, yet he found one reason to do so.  By “going to the gemba,” trying to grasp the essence and to find a practical solution to satisfy his patients in the context of his hospital, fitting in their culture.

Instead of a “we are not…” position, I want to strike a blow for a “proud to be…” attitude.  Let us start with what we are strong at, proud of, the values we muster, the purpose we pursue.  And let us continuously be inspired, and learn from each other.

What are YOU proud of?

I will go first: I am Gert, and I am proud to be Möbius.  I am proud of the touchdown results together with our customers and their customers, I am proud of our perseverance every day, our endless shoulder-to-shoulder mentality, and our guts to take every opportunity to try something new!

And yes, we learn every day from our customers and partners.  And yes, we learned a lot from Toyota.

Gert is inspired by the continuous improvement ideal and is an ‘extreme' value adding thinker. Since 2003, he brings his conviction into practice as management consultant at http://www.mobius.eu/en/.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Loved it! Great post. Not the first time I have heard the ‘we are not making widgets’ comment in the context of services. It seems to be difficult for some to transpose the thinking and tools to their line of work. Glad to see it wasn’t so tough for the MD to apply queuing theory to his job so quickly. Great share.

  2. Hey, I wrote the book “We are not TOYOTA, everybody on the road towards Lean Agility” in Dutch and working on an English version. The reason for the title is that in my role als a Lean sensei, I have often encountered company Managers wiping ‘lean’ off the table referring that they are not TOYOTA once they found out that the origins of Lean are TPS coming from the automotive sector, in casu TOYOTA. Quite too often I had to point out with all too many convincing arguments that Lean and Lean Kata can be applied anywhere by anybody in any situation. Some believed me, some didn’t. But every time we went for it, I proved to them to be right: Every organisation can benefit from applying the basic principles of continuous improvement with respect to people and make it part of the company’s culture. That is why I found it so necessary to write a book about it, filled with illustrations of my personal experience as a Lean coach for over 30 years. Time to get an English version on the shelves! Thank you Gert for quoting the book.L


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